If you ever read Robinson Crusoe in English class, you probably wished for your own “Man Friday,” a friendly personal assistant who could perform all kinds of helpful tasks and make life a little easier — maybe even a little less lonely. Could I interest you in the disembodied equivalent? Modern smart speakers contain friendly personal assistants that can perform all kinds of helpful tasks and make life a little easier — maybe even a little less lonely. The question is, which one works best for older users, particularly those who might be a little less tech-savvy and need a little more assistance? Let’s take a look at the best smart home speakers for seniors.
What is a smart speaker?
Traditional speakers (think: home stereo, clock radio, etc.) produce sound in the form of music, NPR and so on. A smart speaker, which is most often a standalone device, adds one or more microphones to the mix, allowing it to hear your spoken questions and commands. It will then respond to your input and, when applicable, take action. Neat, right?
All this is made possible by adding the speaker to your home Wi-Fi network; it’s only “smart” when it’s connected to the internet. So be prepared for that setup step, which typically requires your phone, an app and possibly your Wi-Fi network password.
What can a smart speaker do?
If you’ve never used one before, be prepared for a surprise: These devices are amazingly capable. Here’s just a smattering of senior-friendly tools they offer, all just a voice command away:
If you’re in the kitchen, you can ask for measurements (“how many cups in a pint?”) and recipe help (“How do I know if my baking soda is still good?”). If you have other smart-home devices like smart plugs or a smart TV, you can tell the speaker to turn off a light or play Grace and Frankie on Netflix. I won’t say the possibilities are endless, but they’re pretty vast.
In some cases you can also purchase a remote caregiving service that integrates with the speaker, an added measure of security for those who live alone or have health concerns.
Are smart speakers a privacy concern?
This question comes up a lot due to the nature of smart-speaker technology: By design, their microphones are always on, always listening. Not everyone is comfortable with that, which is understandable. However, keep in mind that smart speakers don’t actually do anything unless you’ve first invoked the wake word: “Alexa,” “Hey, Google” or “Siri.”
OK, but what happens then? Are your commands recorded and saved? Processed by humans? Used to uncover your deep, dark secrets? Is the government coming?! These are (mostly) legitimate concerns, but allow me to put your mind at ease: While Amazon, Apple and Google have slightly different policies when it comes to smart-speaker data collection and usage, they’re just businesses. They want to improve how their products perform and, sure, sell you more stuff. But marketing isn’t inherently nefarious, and in most cases you have the option of deleting any recordings stored by your speaker.
Using one is, of course, a personal decision, but I think the benefits vastly outweigh any privacy risks. I’ve owned smart speakers for nearly a decade; so far, the government has broken down my door exactly zero times. (Your mileage may vary.)
How we picked the best smart home speakers
A lot of these products have been around a long time, with the occasional iterative update every couple years. Their core capabilities haven’t really changed: You ask a question or issue a command and the speaker responds. Most of the tweaks have been physical — different shapes and colors — and under the hood, with improvements to speaker quality and microphone sensitivity. Of course, the virtual assistants — Alexa, Google, Siri — have grown better with time as well.
The result is that most modern smart speakers are varying degrees of very good, which begs the question: What makes one better than another? Sound quality is a factor, of course, and that might be important for anyone who enjoys listening to music. You can definitely tell the difference between, say, the Apple HomePod and the Amazon Echo Dot. (The former sounds great; the latter, good.)
You can find countless reviews that focus on audio fidelity; we’re here to look at how well these devices are suited to older users. Thus, in making our picks, we looked not just at price, design and sound quality, but also:
Ease of setup
Ease of calling family members and/or emergency services
Integration with other smart-home devices
Integration with safety devices
Spoiler alert: There’s a clear standout here, and that’s Amazon’s Echo lineup. It offers not only the broadest array of product choices, but also the most senior-friendly virtual assistant in the form of Alexa. And although Echoes aren’t linked to a phone-based ecosystem like Apple’s HomePod (iPhone, natch) and Google’s Nest (Android), they can still make calls. If you opt for an Echo that has a screen, you get video calling as well.
Speaking of screens, the Amazon Echo Shows and Google Nest Hubs have them, so they’re a little more tablet-like in their capabilities. In addition to video calls, they can play content from the likes of YouTube and Netflix, show weather reports, stream feeds from security cameras and run a slideshow of your favorite photos. For the moment, Apple doesn’t offer a screen-equipped smart speaker.
Before we dive into the best products, let’s take a closer look at each assistant and what it has to offer to older users.
Alexa for seniors
Alexa isn’t always the smartest assistant in the room (Google earns that crown), but on the whole she’s quite effective — and has an amazing supporting cast. Amazon’s gal leads the pack in terms of “skills,” many of which are integrations with third-party tools and services. For example, you can enable skills that’ll make your misplaced phone ring, play white noise at bedtime or challenge you to a geography quiz.
Even better, there are lots of skills specifically designed for seniors. If you take daily blood pressure readings, a skill called Alex Care can record them for you (through voice prompts) — and alert you if they’re not normal. If you live in a senior community that works with the support service Caremerge, you can ask for things like daily announcements or whether the mail has been delivered.
Alexa-powered Echo devices can also make phone calls, either to numbers in your contact list (which can be imported into the Alexa app) or to any number you ask Alexa to dial. One exception: 911. But see below regarding the Alexa Together option, which adds support for emergency services.
Amazon’s Alexa Together is a remote-caregiving service designed to help family members keep tabs on loved ones, particularly those living on their own. For example, it can alert you of the first Alexa interaction of the day and deliver custom reminders (think: medication) at specific times. But the real win here is 24/7 Urgent Response, which affords hands-free access to emergency services. (In the event of, say, a fall or chest pains, just say, “Alexa, I need help.”) Activating that part of the service also sends immediate notifications to participating family members.
Alexa Together can also integrate with various fall-detection devices, such as the SkyAngelCare Pendant. In the event of a fall, Alexa will ask the wearer if he or she is okay, then engage Urgent Response if needed.
The service costs $20 monthly; there’s currently a 30-day free trial available. Worth noting: Amazon also offers an array of Alexa-based accessibility features for those who struggle with hearing, vision, mobility and so on.
All this adds up to what we consider the best virtual assistant for seniors, especially considering the wide array of products available — some starting at just $40.
Google Assistant for seniors
If you own an Android phone, you’re probably well-acquainted with Google Assistant, who also lives inside Google’s Nest Audio and Mini smart speakers. That kind of continuity can be nice; the same is true for Siri-using iPhone owners (see below). However, Google Assistant doesn’t offer the same breadth of skills as Alexa, though it does work with a similarly wide assortment of smart-home devices. What’s more, I think Google’s gal does a better job with general-information inquiries — because, well, Google.
It’s too bad, then, that the search giant doesn’t cater to seniors in any meaningful way. Although you can set reminders and the like, there’s no integration with caregiver services, fall-detection devices or the like.
As for voice calling, the Nest Audio and Mini support it either with or without your smartphone getting involved, but there’s some complexity behind it. For example, if you activate what’s called “Google-supported calling,” you can make audio calls — but only to people in your Google Contacts list. You can’t dial, say, a pharmacy unless you first add that number to the list. You also can’t make emergency calls. Another option is carrier calling, which brings your phone into the mix and lets you call any number. However, this works only if Google Fi is your carrier, and emergency services still aren’t supported.
Siri for seniors
If you own an iPhone, you’re probably well-acquainted with Siri, who also lives inside the Apple HomePod. Like other assistants, she can respond to a wide range of questions and requests, as well as turn voice commands into actions — turning off lights, adjusting the thermostat and so on. However, there’s a catch: These commands work only with smart-home products that support Apple’s HomeKit technology, and there’s a comparatively small number that do. For example, this popular Kasa Smart Plug 2-pack works with Alexa and Google Assistant, but not HomeKit. That’s also true of the Wyze Cam v3 Indoor/Outdoor Camera and many other well-known devices.
Thus, if you’re hoping to make the HomePod into a hub for your smart home, you may be disappointed. It can be done, but you won’t have the same massive selection of compatible products to choose from.
Assuming you live within that ecosystem, however, you’re likely to find Siri a valuable companion. With your iPhone in close proximity, you can make hands-free phone calls and send text messages the same way. If you have multiple HomePod devices (including the HomePod Mini) around the home, they can function as intercoms.
But Siri herself doesn’t offer any real senior-specific advantages, like integration with a home-care service or a family check-in option. So, again, while she’s a solid choice for iPhone users, she’s not necessarily the best choice overall.